Karak – Intro to Dungeon Crawling
Explore the catacombs beneath Karak Castle!
Your band of hearty adventurers will defeat monsters in your quest to find the most treasure and slay the dragon.
Catacombs of Karak (also known as simply Karak) is a simple dungeon crawl game for 2-5 players by Petr Mikša and Roman Hladík. It’s suitable for most kids 7+ who can play a game that take 45 minutes. Outset Media publishes it in the United States. (See update below)
How to Play
Every player chooses a Hero to play, then takes the standee and description tile for that Hero. Slot the description tile into your “inventory sheet” along with five health tokens.
Lay out the starting dungeon tile, then shuffle the remaining tiles and put them face down in stacks within easy reach.
On a player’s turn, they get up to four orthogonal movement actions. These movements can be in any direction available to their character based on the current tile they’re on. Player can either move along the placed tiles to known areas (hallways or rooms) or, if there is an opening that has nothing beyond it, they can move into the “undiscovered zone”.
When a player moves to an undiscovered zone they draw a face-down tile and connect it to the opening. If the new tile is a room, draw a token from the bag and place it on the room. If it’s a monster, they’ll need to fight.
Whenever you move your character onto a tile with a monster (either with a “move” action or an “explore” action), you must fight the monster and then end your turn.
Roll the dice, add any equipment bonuses, and compare the total to the monster’s strength. When your total is higher, you defeat the monster and flip it over to reveal equipment you can take. If you tie, your hero retreats to the tile you came from. Unfortunately, if your total is less than the monster’s strength, you not only return to your previous spot, you also lose a health point.
No matter how the combat ended, your turn is over.
You can pick up treasure or equipment from a tile you’re standing on, but it ends your turn. Use a key from your inventory to “open” a treasure chest and add the treasure to your stash. (You can carry unlimited treasure, but only two weapons, three scrolls, and one key. Drop equipment and leave it behind if you run out of room.)
If your character is on a healing fountain, you can heal all your damage and remove any curses – but this also ends your turn.
Skills and the Curse of Karak
Every hero character has two skills. These can be incredibly helpful, from winning ties, getting an extra roll, or moving stealthily through a monster’s space without fighting.
But whenever a mummy is defeated, a player must receive the Curse of Karak – they can’t use either of their skills. The curse remains until the player heals their character or another mummy is defeated (allowing the player who defeated the mummy to move the curse – if they want to move it).
Ending the Game
Somewhere in the stacks of tiles is a single dragon tile. A game of Karak ends immediately when someone defeats the dragon. The player who has collected the most treasure is the winner. This means the hero who defeats the dragon might not win!
Catacombs of Karak excels in exactly what it sets out to be: an entry-level dungeon crawler. This has good and bad elements to it. The entry-level nature of the game makes it accessible for younger ages. The only reading in the game relates to the special character skills. They’re fairly easy to remember, so an adult can easily help a pre-reader understand these skills and move on. All of the die rolls in the game are on d6’s, and the math is very simple; adding die rolls to equipment and comparing to enemy strength. That’s it!
The entry-level simplicity doesn’t end there. The dungeons are hallways and single-tile rooms, and creatures don’t move. So, running up against a hard-to-defeat creature doesn’t spell certain doom at all. Losing a health might be disappointing, but players are free to just move in another direction until they find a more suitable adversary. The tile-laying aspect of dungeon exploration makes every game different. No two dungeons are alike!
Sometimes Too Simple
Of course, as this is an entry level game, it’s not well suited for a group of seasoned gamers. Parents can find themselves playing out the string sometimes, as the choices aren’t very difficult to make. Players will always want to trade out their weapons for more powerful ones (A weapon is really just a number, after all) and the dragon requires an attack of 15 to defeat. Even if the dragon tile is pulled early in the game, there’s a certain amount of grinding necessary to get weapons and/or potions to be able to win.
Catacombs of Karak has art well suited to the target demographic and it has a lot of character variety. The gender split in characters is even, but five of the characters are white. The component quality is high, with thick cardboard for all pieces, and the character stands have a “front” and a “back”.
We especially love the inventory boards, with their double-thick cardboard to hold the item, health, and character tokens in place. This is a great addition for a game targeted towards a demographic that might be a little less careful with the pieces in front of them.
This is a game that does a fantastic job achieving the goal it set out to accomplish. If the younger gamers in your family have been looking at your copy of Gloomhaven with longing (and perhaps destruction) in their eyes, Catacombs of Karak might be the perfect solution. If you’re a parent looking for an easy game to dip your toe into fantasy dungeon crawls, Karak may be just the appetizer that you need before the big meal.
At under $30, the character variety, ever-changing dungeons, and accessibly gameplay make Catacombs of Karak a winner for us. Find it at Amazon and see if it’s a winner for your family, too!
Updated December 2022: Karak is now published in the US by KOSMOS. Same great game, now easier to find!
The Family Gamers received a copy of Catacombs of Karak from Outset Media for this review.
This post contains affiliate links, which do not change your price, but help support The Family Gamers.
Number of Players: 2-5
Age Range: 7+
Playtime: 45 minutes